YOU WANT to look away. You don't want to believe the evidence. You can't bear to follow the details.
After more than three years of American warfare in Asia, the report of Afghans being tortured to death by U.S. soldiers at Bagram air base seems like one sickening step too far. It's not that you or any other American needs to be shocked out of complacency - it's that you have an understandable reluctance to look further into the depths of human behavior.
The story - which was the subject last week of a harrowing New York Times article, based on a Defense Department report - won't be recounted here. It has been told once, and to retell it over and over would be to verge on a sort of pornography of slow death. It is enough to say that American guards indulged themselves in a sickening and prolonged bout of sadism that finally killed two prisoners, who even their torturers knew were probably guilty of nothing. The Army calls it a homicide, and an investigation continues. That is proper, but hardly sufficient to address the central question: How could American men and women have brought such dishonor to their uniform, and such shame to their country? What set loose the dark impulses that moved them?
The rotten-apple excuse falls short. The report documents considerable torture and humiliation at Bagram of prisoners who didn't die. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, at least four other prisoners have been killed while in U.S. detention. Commanding officers were not in the dark. Higher up the chain, military and civilian leaders should not have been in the dark. The unit that was serving at Bagram during the worst of the abuses - in late 2002 - was later transferred to another war zone and a new U.S. prison, called Abu Ghraib.
The war-is-hell excuse doesn't go far, either. Plenty of armies have conducted themselves in wartime with more discipline - with more self-respect.
What broke? Maybe, in the end, there is no simple explanation for the sudden fall from the decency that is supposed to be an American birthright. Maybe all we can say is that Americans went chasing after evil in 2001, and some found it within themselves.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai counsels his people to be patient. Without U.S. troops, Afghanistan would be in far worse trouble than it is. This week, he signed an agreement with President Bush that opens the way to permanent American bases there. He asked, in return, that Afghan prisoners be turned over to Afghan control. That would accomplish two things: It would free them from their American jailers, and it would free the Americans from the brutalizing temptations of torture.